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With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Tragically new managers are seldom prepared or trained to handle power very well and inadvertently can do great damage in organizations.

Throughout history leaders and cultures rise and fall as a result of how they use power, and particularly the motivation behind their use of that power.

  • Great (PULL) leaders understand power comes from within and they use this power in service to others. They help others discover their own power in order to achieve.

  • Damaging (PUSH) leaders use their power to take power from others through intimidation and manipulation (this includes guilt).

Tragically new managers are seldom prepared or trained to handle power very well and inadvertently can do great damage in organizations.

So what is power? Power comes in many different forms, and leaders need to personally grow before they are prepared to handle it. In 1959, psychologists John French and Bertram Raven introduced five types of power (along with two types that were introduced later).

For example, as managers we are granted Positional Power by nature of our position within the hierarchy. We will only be effective in this role if others view us as legitimately deserving of this power. They will watch how we use power and determine whether we are perceived as legitimate in the position over time.

Eisenhower once said, “[People] are like strings…. Pull them, and they will follow wherever you wish. Push them, and they will go nowhere at all." Almost every manager can be categorized into a “Pull” style or “Push” style, and this affects how he or she uses the other types of power.

Immature or new managers will generally feel the need to push. Coercive Power(command and control) is effectively taking power from others by use of threats and force – at its worst it is affectionately known as bullying. The sad truth is a disturbing number of leaders at all levels prefer this method of power, as it feeds their starving egos. In this case, the use of power is self-serving and can even be abusive. The methods of coercion are varied as well:

  • Direct intimidation

  • Interrogation – challenging and poking holes in new ideas to debase them

  • Poor me – use of guilt or manipulation through rewards, punishments or other means

  • Withholding – ignoring or withholding feedback, praise or development.

There can be no credibility or lasting influence with coercive power, only resentment and damage. There is never a good time for practicing coercive power. Coercive leaders tend to:

  • Take the credit when things go well

  • Blame others when things go wrong

  • Be ambitious for personal success and seek the limelight (self seeking)

  • Be passionate about personal achievement

  • Make excuses (It’s the economy! It’s that group over there!)

  • Not reflect much; aren’t transparent about or aware of their weaknesses

  • Be driven by external factors--money, approval, status, etc.

  • Focus more on how others’ behaviors affect them

  • Enjoy the status and playing the role of leader

The opposite of Coercive Power is Referent Power, or the ability to convey a sense of personal acceptance (of self) or self approval. This power is self sustained and does not need to take power from others to sustain itself. Referent power is generally witnessed among those with higher emotional intelligence, maturity, acceptance of their own weaknesses and the desire to use their power to be of service to others.

Service to others, if it is to be effective, must be egoless, and is the most valuable type of power. As Collins wrote in his book, Good to Great, Level Five (Referent) leaders tend to

  • Give credit to others when things go well

  • Take full responsibility when things go wrong

  • Lack ambition for self, but are motivated for the whole organization to do well

  • Avoid the limelight

  • Feel passionate about the work

  • Not make excuses

  • No matter what the obstacles, ask: “What can we do to succeed?”

  • When the answer becomes clear, they act

  • Be reflective, intuitive and trust their intuition

  • Be aware of how their words and behaviors affect others (self aware)

  • Enjoy leading but more than that, enjoy seeing others succeed

  • Dedicate themselves to the growth and development of others

Coercive or Referent power can also be exhibited in the remaining types of power:

Expert Power is the perception that one possesses superior skills or knowledge. If you remember The Professor from Gilligan’s island, then you recall his fellow castaways often deferred to his knowledge and intellect, which allowed him to influence and lead others.

  • Coercive Leader – uses expertise to gain accolades and praise. Views expertise as a strategic advantage over others and so will never share knowledge.

  • Referent Leader – uses expertise to teach and lead others to develop their expertise in order to build a competitive team and organization.

Informational Power is a short-term situation where a person possesses needed or wanted information. For example, inside information creates short-term power until it is made public.

  • Coercive Leader – uses Informational Power for personal gain or to leverage/bribe or harm others.

  • Referent Leader – uses Informational Power only to help inform good decision-making without releasing any of the information.

Reward Power is the act of a manager motivating others by offering raises, promotions, and awards.

  • Coercive Leader – uses Reward Power as a tool of manipulation; motives are secretive.

  • Referent Leader – uses Reward Power as a tool of motivation and retention; motives are transparent and collaborative.

Connection Power is where a person attains influence by gaining favor or simply acquaintance with a powerful person. This power is all about networking.

  • Coercive Leader – uses connections to leapfrog others without earning opportunities. May also abuse power over others by threatening to involve more powerful connections.

  • Referent Leader – uses connections to help others advance great ideas or access to deserving opportunities.

Great leadership is about power, yet it is not about power over others. It's about stewardship and service and demanding growth from others. The most fascinating aspect of power is that it’s greatest when we help others discover it as well by giving ours to them.

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